Monthly Archives: July 2013

Hunter Reviews “A Good American” by Alex George

(Paige is taking a break this week, so Hunter is writing the review!)

It is no secret that the publishing industry in this country churns out an excessive amount of pointless dribble, and it is little wonder that so many people have recently all but abandoned books. However, every so often, a book comes along that is so pleasurable, so sentence-for-sentence perfectly written, that it reignites a dwindling belief in the power of literature; a book that simply must be shared with others. A Good American is just such a book.

This multigenerational, American saga begins, as nearly all American sagas begin, on foreign soil. In the opening pages, during the early years of the previous century, we find Frederick Meisenheimer hiding behind a bush in a municipal garden in Hanover, Germany waiting to ambush a girl whom he has never met with an aria. Music will play an important role throughout the book, becoming a character itself during the course of the story. Puccini’s “Che gelida manina” from the composer’s opera, La Bohéme does the trick, and Frederick and Jette are soon married, despite parental objections. Before long the newlyweds find themselves aboard the ship Copernicus, in route to America and the couple’s new life, but by mistake end up not in New York, but New Orleans.  But this is no problem. After all, “They’re both new.”

They settle in the small town of Beatrice, Missouri, finding comfort in the town’s large German population. There, they open a restaurant, serving a culinary mix of German and Creole food, and play host to a wide variety of musical entertainment, from opera to Dixieland jazz.  Their patriotism is soon tested however with President Wilson’s declaration of war on Germany and the terror of World War I that was to come. Which side should the new immigrants support? Jette misses her home dearly and is disgusted by the whole war fury that has gripped the nation, but Frederick, who only wants to look to the future, supports his new country, even going so far as joining the U.S. army and going off to fight.

The magic of music continues its defining role in the family’s succeeding generations. Frederick and Jette’s son, Joseph, courts his wife with arias and will continue running the restaurant, although with a more American flare than his parents would perhaps be comfortable with.  In due time, Joseph’s sons, including James, the novel’s narrator, form a barbershop quartet and together carry the town’s residents through weddings and bar mitzvahs and funerals with their angelic harmony.

George intersperses his novel with a cast of eccentric characters, including a bicycle-riding dwarf attorney, a young teenager with a genetic disorder that leaves him with the body of a giant, a music teacher who seduces not only her students but the whole town, and a preacher who is certain he has witnessed the return of Christ in the form of a young man standing on a log. Alongside these peculiar individuals, the books of the great comic master P.G. Wodehouse play a central theme in James’ life and education as a writer. (One can hope that A Good American will introduce at least a few readers to Wodehouse.) In George’s capable hands, these secondary characters never take away from the story. Instead, each one adds their own flavor, complimenting the novel as a whole; the perfect amount of seasoning.

Alex George immigrated to America in 2003 from England, where he studied at Oxford University and spent eight years as a corporate lawyer in London and Paris. He has published four previous novels, all published in Europe. The Times of London named George one of Britain’s top ten “thirty-something” novelists. He now lives in Columbia, Missouri where he runs his own law firm.

In A Good American, Alex George has given us an inspirational and delightful story. It is, throughout, a wonderful read. The book’s editor, Amy Einhorn, the woman behind the successes of Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress and Kathryn Stockett’s runaway best-seller The Help, among others, has quite possibly outdone herself with her discovery of Mr. George.

It is nothing short of a cognitive pleasure to come across writing such as George’s. His talent for choosing the right word or phrase is refreshing. Page after page in The Good American, the reader is awestruck with such linguistic treasures as: “Polk felt the fingers of God brush lightly over his soul.” And one more, when the United States is caught up in anti-German frenzy in the weeks prior to the First World War, we read, “In St. Louis, a man defended Germany in an argument, and a furious mob stripped him naked and dragged him through the streets. Then they lynched him. The people of Beatrice shuddered and hung out another American flag.”

It is difficult to read A Good American without personally relating at least a few scenes or characters to your own life. That, after all, is what great literature is; it speaks to all of us. That is what George has done in his latest novel. Some books simply must have a place at the top of one’s ‘need-to-read’ list; A Good American is deserving of such a place.

~Hunter

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Anton DiSclafani – “The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls”

Tomorrow afternoon, Anton DiSclafani will be here to sign her debut novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls.  In preparation for that, here’s a quick preview of this incredible, wonderful, darkly compelling book.

In the summer of 1930, Thea Atwell is sent to the titular camp in the wake of family tragedy, dark secrets and unspecified shame hanging over head.  Having been raised in almost total isolation at home in Florida, this transition to the Blue Ridge mountains is a jarring one on many levels.  She has never previously spent any time in the company of girls her own age – until now, Thea’s sole companions have been her twin brother Sam and her cousin Georgie.  Her past is unique and peculiar in its way – the situation she finds herself in is even more so.  Above her personal turmoil, the threat of the Great Depression looms, drawing ever nearer.

The story unfolds slowly over the course of a year, as Thea gradually opens up, even to herself, about her childhood and the events that led to her exile.  The clues dropped along the way are tantalizing, and kept me spell-bound until the last moment.  Thea’s voice is both old and young, combining youthful inexperience with mature reflection – she’s looking back on events in the now-distant past, but still retains all of the passion and uncertainty of adolescence.  Over the course of the novel, Thea gradually comes to accept that things will never be the same again – that she will never be the same.  Her perceptions have been irrevocably altered, and she can never view her family in the same light again.  She never ceases to love them, but her eyes have been opened, and she can now see far more clearly than she could before.  In the process, Thea discovers herself at camp, apart from her family and especially her twin, and develops her own identity in the process.

Yonahlossee is itself an unusual place, which is reflected in the name.  A sizeable number of the girls attend year-round (Thea is one of them), but it is a riding camp, first and foremost, not a boarding school.  Academic classes are held, but riding takes priority over all other lessons, attendance at those is far from mandatory, and grades are never assigned – at one point, Thea and her friends wonder what grades even are.  They’ve heard about such things from boys of their acquaintance, but have no understanding of the concept.  Riding and horses are the foci of all camp activities – and yet there is no indication that the girls will ever actually put that skill to use.  They will not compete, or teach lessons – it’s simply a genteel skill to acquire and occupy their time while waiting for marriage.

For all its limitations, Yonahlossee ends up teaching Thea lessons about life that she desperately needs to learn.  Having spent her entire life in virtual isolation apart from her immediate family, she requires experience in interacting with others.  She needs the perspective offered by distance – the events that led to her exile are emotionally charged, to say the least, and she needs a change of place to re-evaluate them and come to peace with herself.

There’s a curious sense of powerlessness and resignation at work in the camp, for the characters in this very specific time and place – the Yonahlossee girls all acknowledge that almost everything in their lives is beyond their control.  The mere idea that they might be able to help their families in any meaningful way is almost laughable.  Perhaps this is why riding is so heavily emphasized in the curriculum, at the expense of almost everything else.  It gives the girls a sense of power, of the ability to control and guide something much larger and more powerful than themselves.  Unfortunately, this power is only an illusion – none of the girls are truly in control of their own destinies.  Thea stands out because she is determined to make her own fate, to choose her own life.

Ultimately, this is a novel about desire, and the consequences of pursuing those desires.  Thea is intensely passionate, and she wants things and people – this is a central part of her character, and in no small part leads to her exile at Yonahlossee.  All too quickly, she learns that when you pursue what you want, it can quite often backfire spectacularly.  The consequences of our actions can be widespread, far beyond what could be imagined or anticipated.  At the same time, though, DiSclafani never implies that wanting things and going after what you want is in any way a flaw – just that you have to be prepared to accept whatever happens as a result of what you want.  To want, to desire is an intrinsic part of being human, and damn the consequences.

~Paige

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Matthew Guinn – “The Resurrectionist”

I love novels that begin with an actual event, and then build from there, crafting a well-woven fiction on the basis of established fact.  In the case of The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn, the historical inspiration comes from a particularly unpleasant discovery made in 1989 at the Medical College of Georgia.  Around the bare bones of history, Guinn spins an intricate and suspenseful tale of death, betrayal and redemption, taking the truth and creating fiction, something new and wonderful and entirely his own.

 

The plot of the novel alternates between one week in August 1995 (although the date is never explicitly given), and several events in the years leading up to, during and immediately after the Civil War.  The latter timeline is referred to as Fernyear, an obscure term defined by Guinn as “a past year, olden times”, and follows the career of Nemo Johnston, the titular “resurrectionist”, owned by the South Carolina Medical College and responsible for procuring cadavers for the school’s anatomy lessons – by any means necessary.  In large part, Nemo is based upon the real-life figure of Grandison Harris, who performed a similar function for the Medical College of Georgia, along with serving as the school’s butler and janitor.

 

Over a century later, the grisly remains of Nemo’s work are uncovered in a campus basement during a renovation, right as the new school year begins.  The College is determined to conceal the discovery, fearful of the PR disaster that threatens to tarnish their image, while others in the surrounding community are equally adamant that the bones should be brought to light.  Caught in the heart of the controversy is Dr. Jacob Thacker, temporarily handling public relations for the Dean’s office while on probation for Xanax abuse.  As he attempts to chart his way between the opposing factions without being  destroyed, his quest to unearth the secrets of the skeletons in the basement becomes disturbingly personal when he discovers that his own family background is closely intertwined with the history of the College.

 

The two protagonists, Nemo and Jacob, although very different in many respects, are similarly caught in unenviable and seemingly inescapable moral compromises.  They are inextricably bound to the College (Nemo by virtue of being owned by it, Jacob by his dependence on its goodwill to regain his medical license), yet their loyalties are thoroughly tested by the work they are asked to undertake on the school’s behalf – Nemo in digging up bodies, Jacob in covering them up again.  Eventually, both men are able to escape their respective predicaments (and take highly satisfying revenge) in equally audacious and inimitable fashions.

 

The dark side of history is on full display here, with no punches pulled and all the nasty bits left in.  Luckily for me, I have always been fascinated by this aspect of the past – I blame early exposure to Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories for that.  However, while a children’s series can play the more gruesome aspects of history for laughs, treating it as light-hearted comedy, that is very much not the case here.  Even the funniest bits make you squirm, just a little.  Guinn never lets us forget that the people of the past were precisely that – people, no better and no worse than everyone walking around today, prone to the same failings and triumphs … often in the same individual.  Nothing and no one are as simple or clear-cut as a textbook would have you believe.  Saint and sinner, in the same package.

 

It’s a fascinating read, dealing with our own squeamishness and hypocrisy in the face of history and medical necessity.  Nemo is looked down upon for his work by the very doctors and medical students who rely so heavily on the fruits of his labors for the very survival of the school.  Jacob wants to expose the full truth of the college’s past, warts and all, but is thwarted by those above him.  In both eras, the administration is determined to preserve the school’s reputation, hiding anything remotely unsavory, no matter the human cost to those in their pathPlus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

 

The Resurrectionist is creepy and macabre (in the best possible way), with lots of black (and at times squicky) humor.  At the same time, however, it is truly heart-warming, with an unwavering belief in the possibility of second chances as characters repeatedly resolve to be better than they have been.  All of which results in a curious yet highly satisfying brew.

 

~Paige

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“The Civil War in 50 Objects” – Harold Holzer

In case it hasn’t been readily apparent from my previous posts, I am and always have been a history nut … and a sucker for illustrated volumes in the genre.  There’s a very good reason my third-grade teacher, tired of repeatedly finding me with Life Through the Ages by Giovanni Caselli under my desk, told me to “Take it home, memorize it, and NEVER TOUCH IT AGAIN.”  Luckily for all concerned, my parents got me my own personal copy for Christmas.  That particular volume, complete with really gorgeous illustrations, wasn’t the only book I got caught reading in class (far from it), but it was the most frequent offender.

All of which is my long-winded and extremely roundabout way of explaining why I loved Harold Holzer’s The Civil War in Fifty Objects.

In a rather unusual narrative style, this book is exactly what it says on the cover: an attempt to tell the story of the Civil War through the medium of 50 wildly different objects, more or less chronologically arranged, with gorgeous color plates of each one.  In doing so, this volume manages to convey both breadth and depth – not an easy feat, especially upon so complex and convoluted a subject as the Civil War.  Around each chosen object, Holzer weaves a brilliant and enthralling narrative.  Not only does he describe the object in great detail (what it was, how it was used, who owned it, and where it came from), but he also establishes context within the greater view of the War Between the States, conveying its full significance.    This is not just history, but story-telling at its finest.

The objects are all taken from the collection of the New York Historical Society, which contains over a million Civil War artifacts.  How they managed to select a mere fifty to focus on simply boggles the mind.  In selecting a representative sample from the collection, Holzer covers an incredibly wide range of objects, including both art and artifacts, from the extremely large (the Emancipation Proclamation) to the very small (collections of Confederate uniform buttons).  To the casual observer, a number of these items would not be termed significant or important, yet so much about everyday life can be extrapolated even from the smallest of artifacts.

The narrative is rather New-York-centric, but this is only to be expected, given the source of the objects.  Even so, there is equal attention given to both sides of the conflict, with all viewpoints explored.  In addition, this also serves to give perspective to the deeply divided nature of New York City during the war, even before the 1863 Draft Riots .  Up until now, I hadn’t realized that in 1861, under mayor Fernando Wood, the Big Apple had seriously considered seceding from the Union!

The title is slightly deceiving – there are somewhat more than 50 objects featured in this volume – although each chapter is centered around one particular piece, most chapters include at least one supplementary image, to help provide context and perspective for the main object.  All in color, all beautiful.  Although not truly comparable to seeing the objects in person, this book comes a close second for those of us who don’t live in NYC, or haven’t had the chance to visit … sigh.

As great as the book is overall, I have to admit that my favorite part was the chapter titles, which are witty and evocative, poking fun at even the most somber of objects, even with the occasional terrible pun: “Wheel of Misfortune” for a Draft Wheel from 1863; “A Dentist Drills Lincoln” on the etchings of Adalbert Johann Volck, dentist by trade and self-taught Confederate artist; “The Draft that Really Ended the War”, referring to the rough draft of Grant’s Terms of Surrender; and best (or worst) of all “A Helping Hand for the Wounded Veteran” for a letter from said veteran … written with his new artificial arm!

This is not a general history of the Civil War, nor it is even an overview of the subject: that would require far more than fifty objects.  Instead, through a series of snapshots and vignettes, Holzer offers us a new perspective on a familiar subject: the perfect marriage of the verbal and the visual.

~Paige

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“Moonrise” – Cassandra King

One of the benefits to working in a bookstore is that you get sneak peeks of upcoming novels, reading advanced copies before they’re officially published.  So this week, I’m giving everyone a preview of Cassandra King’s latest novel, Moonrise, due out in September, and we’ll be having the book launch here on September 4th.

What immediately caught my attention about this particular book, among all the advanced readers we have, is that it was inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca – one of my all-time favorite novels.  I first read it in 8th grade English class, and have loved it ever since.  Needless to say, I dove right into this newer version, even with only an uncorrected proof at my disposal.

The initial set-up of Moonrise‘s plot is virtually identical to that of its predecessor: Helen Honeycutt falls in love with recent widower Emmet Justice and marries him, less than a year after his first wife, Rosalyn, was killed in a tragic accident.  The newlywed couple sets out spend the summer with Emmet’s close circle of friends at Moonrise, Rosalyn’s beautiful family home in the splendid isolation of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, hoping to ease the tension that their marriage has caused within the close-knit group.  Everything is not as it seems, however, and secrets are lurking beneath the lovely facade of Helen’s new home.  Rosalyn’s presence is everywhere, inescapably so, and someone – or something – is obviously trying to drive her replacement away.

There’s no question that in creating this tale of deception and mystery, King was inspired by du Maurier, but Moonrise is very much its own novel, rather than an updated retelling.  The bare bones of Rebecca are there, but it’s not the same story, despite beginning in a similar place, with similar characters.  All expectations about the plot should be immediately thrown out the window, in spite of the obvious parallels, even to those intimately familiar with the original novel.

The familiar elements are all present and accounted for, but they have been skillfully scattered, and then re-assembled into a new pattern that is delightfully puzzling, even to those who are well-acquainted with the original.  This is especially true when it comes to the characters, as there are no direct counterparts to du Maurier – even Helen is quite different from Rebecca‘s unnamed narrator, despite some superficial similarities.

One of the very few flaws of du Maurier’s work is that we only see events through the eyes of the nameless protagonist, who is so unsure of both herself and the world around her that it is very difficult to accept her view without question.  How much of what we see is real, and how much can be attributed to her overactive imagination, her rampant insecurities, and her rather skewed perspective of the world?  Of course, this element also adds to the novel’s charm, and heightens the suspense (already rather high), as well as making certain revelations that much more shocking and unsettling.

In contrast, King divides her novel between three radically different narrators.  None of them is completely reliable, in that each has agendas of her own, but through their overlapping narratives, the reader can decide (mostly) what is real and what isn’t.  Helen is one of them, for obvious reasons; the other two are Tansy Dunwoody, a childhood friend of Rosalyn and close friend of Emmet, and Willa McFee, a young local woman whose mother was the housekeeper at Moonrise and who is now the property manager for many houses in the area.  It’s wonderful to see the same events through three such dissimilar sets of eyes, comparing their perceptions of the world.

Rebecca is a true Gothic thriller, creating and emphasizing an overpowering atmosphere of mystery, suspense and fear; it’s all about the setting.  These elements are present in Moonrise, but King’s novel focuses far more on character than atmosphere.  We only see the characters of Rebecca through the eyes of the admittedly unreliable narrator, and so our knowledge of them is by necessity incomplete, their depths only hinted at and rarely explored.  In contrast, King’s incomparable cast are all rich, vivid and complex, far more developed, and there is a great deal more at stake here than Helen’s discomfort and isolation.  Plots and subplots swirl and intersect, often utterly independent from the main storyline, developing the characters far beyond how Helen sees them, or even how they affect her directly.  The focus of the novel isn’t entirely on Helen and her husband, but rather on a group of individuals both connected and divided by a tragic loss, and is the richer for it.

All right, enough teasing.  See you on September 4th, when you can read it for yourself!

~Paige

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